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Preseason – Rick Neuheisel hired / CU Preview

 National and Big Eight Recap – 1995

In 1995, the Nebraska Cornhuskers repeated as National Champions, dominating the Florida Gators 62-24 in the National Championship game played at the Fiesta Bowl.  Previously unbeaten Florida came into the contest with an air attack led by record-setter Danny Weurffel.  Head coach Steve Spurrier had his “Air Spurrier” offense on track until it ran into a buzzsaw of a defense in Nebraska’s “Blackshirts”.

Nebraska was led by quarterback Tommie Frazier, who led the Cornhuskers to a 12-0 record, but could not procure for himself the Heisman Trophy.  In the closest vote since 1990, Ohio State running back Eddie George beat out Frazier for recognition as the college game’s best player.  George’s teammate, offensive tackle Orlando Pace, swept the lineman awards.

In the Big Eight, in the final year of play for the Conference, the top teams sent the Conference out with a flourish.

In addition to Nebraska’s title, three other members finished in the top ten of the national rankings.  Colorado, Kansas State, and Kansas all finished 9-2, 5-2 in Big Eight play.  In winning their bowl games, the Buffs, Wildcats, and Jayhawks all finished 10-2, with rankings of 5th, 7th, and 9th, respectively.  Colorado capped Rick Neuheisel’s first campaign with a 38-6 rout of Oregon in the Cotton Bowl, while Kansas State crushed Colorado State 54-21 in the Holiday Bowl and Kansas outscored UCLA 51-30 in the Aloha Bowl.

Incoming members of the Big 12 – Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech – went 2-1 in bowl games, with the Aggies and Red Raiders emerging victorious.  With Texas finishing 1995 with a No. 14 ranking, followed closely by A&M (15th) and Texas Tech (23rd), the future of the new Big 12, set to kickoff with the 1996 season, appeared very bright – with seven teams out of the new conference finishing the 1995 season nationally ranked.

 Preview, 1995  All Roads to Tempe to Lead Through Lincoln

In 1994, the Nebraska Cornhuskers had finally given head coach Tom Osborne his long-anticipated National Championship.  For an encore, much was expected in Lincoln for 1995.  The Cornhuskers were well stocked, and head coach Osborne had a problem most coaches would love to have … too much talent and too easy of a schedule.

Nebraska had two proven winners at quarterback, Tommie Frazier and Brook Berringer.  Keeping the quarterbacks happy seemed to be Nebraska’s biggest obstacle to conference and national titles, however, as the schedule was feather light.  None of the Cornhuskers non-conference opponents managed to garner so much as one point in the Associated Press preseason poll (a total of 48 teams made at least the “others receiving votes” portion of the poll).

The rest of the nation was not yet ready to concede to Nebraska the 1995 title, however.

Florida State, coming off a 10-1-1 campaign and a No. 4 final ranking, was given the top spot in the preseason poll, with Nebraska coming in second.  A total of seven teams received first place votes, an indication that 1995 was to be wide open.  Other teams which writers felt had good reason to look forward to the 1995 campaign included: Texas A&M (3rd in the preseason poll), Penn State (4th), Florida (5th), Auburn (6th), and Tennessee (8th).  All of these teams merited at least one first place vote.

Colorado would play both Nebraska and Texas A&M in 1995, along with Wisconsin (ranked 21st in the preseason poll) and Oklahoma (15th).

Not an easy way for a new coach in Boulder to be broken in.

 Aftershocks

As Colorado head coach Rick Neuheisel set out to prepare for the 1995 season, the nation was still abuzz about Bill McCartney’s surprise announcement to resign, and Athletic Director Bill Marolt controversial decision to hire Neuheisel.

Marolt’s choice to pass over assistant head coach Bob Simmons, who is black, created rumblings of a racial bias against African-American coaches.  Neuheisel was as diplomatic as possible.  “The Rainbow Coalition stance is a respectable stance,” said the Buffs’ new coach about Jesse Jackson’s organization, which had been the most outspoken critic of Neuheisel’s selection.  “I’m just not sure it applies to Colorado.  Just because the coalition believes there should be more black coaches doesn’t mean Rick Neuheisel shouldn’t apply.”  Simmons left the CU program after Neuheisel’s selection, landing the job of head coach at Oklahoma State.  Also gone were the other in-house candidates, Mike Hankwitz and Elliot Uzelac.

In addition to replacing three coaches, Neuheisel faced the daunting task of replacing a host of key players from the 11-1, third-ranked 1994 edition of the Buffs.  Kordell Stewart, the Big Eight’s all-time career offense leader, was gone.  So too was the 2,055-yard rusher and Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam.  If these losses were not enough, Michael Westbrook, CU’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns, was off to the NFL, along with tight end Christian Fauria, the Buffs’ all-time leader for receptions by a tight end.

Nor was the defense spared from losses to the pros.

Thorpe Award winner Chris Hudson was gone, as were defensive tackles Darius Holland and Shannon Clavelle.  In all, ten players were drafted by the NFL, including underclassmen Salaam and Clavelle.

Neuheisel was realistic:  “Any time you lose a senior class that we lost, as well as two prominent juniors, to the NFL, you have a reloading job to do.”

But McCartney had not left the cupboard bare.  Junior Koy Detmer returned with over 1,100 career passing yards already to his credit.  The running game would be led by sophomore Herchell Troutman, who had set the CU freshman scoring record with eight touchdowns in 1994.  The receiving corps remained deep in talent, if not game experience.  Juniors Rae Carruth and James Kidd returned, joined by sophomores Chris Anderson and Phil Savoy.  The offensive line, with three seniors and two juniors starting, looked to be the strongest unit of the offense.  “I promise you we’ll get down the field just as fast as we used to”, said Neuheisel.

The defense returned seven players with starting experience, led by middle linebacker Matt Russell and safeties Donnell Leomiti and Steve Rosga.  Neuheisel brought in A.J. Christoff from UCLA to be his defensive coordinator, and Christoff installed a 4-3 defense to replace the 3-4 of recent years.  “Defensively, it’s to our benefit to increase the pressure on the quarterback”, said Neuheisel.  “We feel that the 4-3 suits this desire.”

The national pre-season magazines were undecided about the Buffs.  “So much talent gone, with an un-tested head coach at the helm”, was the common theme.  How would the returning players react?  Would they jell in time to face a non-conference slate which included games against Wisconsin, Colorado State, and Texas A&M?

The Buffs, who had finished 1994 with only one loss and ranked third in the nation, were ranked in the top ten by only two preseason prognosticators (Sports Illustrated and Sports magazines, which both had the Buffs 8th).  Most rankings were in the 13-16 range, with Athlon feeling the best the Buffs would do was 20th.

The nation, apparently, wanted to see what Neuheisel could do before jumping on his bandwagon.  Colorado’s young coach understood.  “You get a honeymoon period,” noted Neuheisel.  “Then you go into the fishbowl and get labeled.  The question then becomes ‘can you last?’  It’s not what you inherit, it’s what you build.”

The building began with fall drills in August, 1995.

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